June 2015 Cover Story: Tourism

Creating new tourism opportunities around natural resources

Kate Montgomery, Rome, won the grand prize in the 2014 Camping Photo Contest with her submission of a starry night at Keewaydin State Park outside Alexandria Bay. The contest, sponsored by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Department of Environmental Conservation, showcased New York’s scenic outdoors. Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation/Department of Environmental Conservation.

Kate Montgomery, Rome, won the grand prize in the 2014 Camping Photo Contest with her submission of a starry night at Keewaydin State Park outside Alexandria Bay. The contest, sponsored by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Department of Environmental Conservation, showcased New York’s scenic outdoors.
Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation/Department of Environmental Conservation.

Despite a falling Canadian dollar and a dip in cross-border visits to Northern New York, officials are working to market the region’s strengths, including its hundreds of miles of lakes and rivers and seemingly infinite number of outdoor recreation activities.

By Norah Machia, NNY Business

George D. Horne knows what it’s like to handle a challenge.

For more than 60 years, his family has been operating a ferry from Cape Vincent to Wolfe Island along the St. Lawrence River. Mr. Horne’s 10-minute trip attracts approximately 50 percent of its customers from Canada and the other 50 percent from throughout New York State.

“There are people who have camps on Wolfe Island,” and spend the weekends fishing or biking on the scenic Canadian island, Mr. Horne said.

Some drive up from the Syracuse or Rochester areas, while others are local residents. Many people also take the ferry to spend just the day on Wolfe Island, often with their bikes or motorcycles, he added.

Then there are the cross-border travelers seeking a more scenic route between the United States and Canada. After taking Horne’s Ferry to Wolfe Island, they drive seven miles across the island to catch a free provincial ferry that makes the crossing to downtown Kingston in about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the day.

On the other side of the border, many Canadians have taken the ferry excursions to reach the United States as well, Mr. Horne said.

Mr. Horne is the sixth-generation ferryman who captains the William Darrell, which can accommodate up to 10 vehicles. His season just started in early May, and it will run through mid-October.

But ridership on the ferry that docks off James Street in Cape Vincent has been declining in recent years, Mr. Horne said. It started after stricter security measures were put in place following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“People used to drive up with a car full of kids, and just show a driver’s license,” said Mr. Horne. “That changed, and everyone in the car needed to have identification. A driver’s license alone was not enough anymore.”

Other seasons have been affected by the ups and downs of the economy, or the fluctuating price of gasoline, Mr. Horne said.
But this summer, Mr. Horne will be facing the challenge of the weakening Canadian dollar, known as the loonie.

“When the Canadian dollar is down, the Canadians don’t come across as often” to shop and dine in the north country, which means fewer dollars spent here, he said.

Horne’s Ferry owner and Capt. George Horne. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Horne’s Ferry owner and Capt. George Horne. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Like Mr. Horne, recreation and tourism officials throughout the region are continuing their efforts to attract Canadian visitors this summer, despite the drop in the value of the loonie. On May 22, one Canadian dollar was worth just 0.77 U.S. cents.

That challenge comes at a time when sales tax collections are down across the state, according to the New York State Association of Counties.

There were 33 counties in which sales tax was down in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the first quarter of 2014. A total of 12 counties had their collections drop by more than 5 percent, according to NYSAC.

Closer to home, the first-quarter sales tax revenue results in Jefferson County showed the county experienced a nearly 5 percent drop in sales tax revenue, compared with the same quarter last year.

The purchasing power of the Canadian dollar, which had hovered around 80 cents U.S. since January, was identified as one of the possible culprits.

But the director of the state park system’s Thousand Island Region said he remains optimistic after reviewing the numbers of Canadian visitors to the parks during that country’s Victoria Day holiday in May.

Despite the weakening of the Canadian dollar, the regional park system did not see a significant decline in the number of visitors from Canada, Kevin A. Kieff said.

“Visitation to our parks was still strong,” he said.

There are a significant number of Canadian residents who visit the state parks in the Thousand Islands Region each year, Mr. Kieff said.

“Canadian traffic is usually in the 30 percent range,” he said. “There seems to be many loyal campers who come to our parks.”

These include parks near the border of Canada, as well as some that are inland, he said. Wellesley Island State Park is one of the most popular with Canadian visitors, along with Grass Point State Park, Alexandria Bay.

A new waterfront comfort station at Keewaydin State Park, Alexandria, was unveiled last summer. Home to nearly two-dozen state parks, investments in Northern New York’s tourism infrastructure are routine as steps to attract more seasonal guests to the region continue. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

A new waterfront comfort station at Keewaydin State Park, Alexandria, was unveiled last summer. Home to nearly two-dozen state parks, investments in Northern New York’s tourism infrastructure are routine as steps to attract more seasonal guests to the region continue. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

In St. Lawrence County, some of the popular parks frequented by Canadians have been Robert Moses State Park in Massena, which is near the bridge crossing, and even Higley Flow State Park, Colton, which is more inland, Mr. Kieff said.

In past years, when the value of the Canadian dollar fluctuated within a “normal range,” it did not appear to have an impact, he said.

“People still found a way to visit us,” Mr. Kieff said.

But the current exchange rate of approximately 23 percent is “substantial for the Canadian dollar,” he said.

“Most people have not seen it this low,” Mr. Kieff said. “It may be challenging for the communities in terms of tourism-related spending.”

The Thousand Islands Region is headquartered in Alexandria Bay, in Keywayden State Park and includes 30 state parks in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Franklin and Clinton counties.

One reason for the large draw of Canadians is probably due to significant investments the state is making in the park system, he said.

“Our facilities are truly beautiful,” Mr. Kieff said.

The region’s park on Wellesley Island is one of the most popular with Canadian visitors, he said. Investments of close to $2 million are being made at that park alone, with a new beach bathhouse, pavilion, concession stand, store, lifeguard station and video arcade under construction. A major upgrade was also recently completed at Grasse Point State Park, with a new beach bathhouse and a playground going up in the near future.

“The work is continuing,” Mr. Kieff said “We have been rehabilitating almost all our buildings in recent years.”

The improvements have been taking place as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s NY Parks 2020 initiative, which includes an investment of $900 million in both private and public funding for the creation of new campgrounds and the improvement of existing ones between 2011 and 2020.

The investments have also helped to keep Fort Drum military families visiting the state parks, even during periods of deployments, Mr. Kieff said.

At some point within the next 13 months, members of all of the division’s brigades and its headquarters are expected to deploy overseas, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Bannister announced in April. Deployments for training and advising missions have been confirmed for approximately 1,250 soldiers from the division’s 1st Brigade to Iraq and approximately 1,600 soldiers from the division’s 2nd Brigade to Afghanistan.

The state parks that experience the biggest impact in day use (swimming and picnicking) during deployments are Westcott Beach State Park in Sackets Harbor, and Southwick Beach State Park in Henderson, Mr. Kieff said.

“Those are the most popular parks with the military” because of their close proximity to Fort Drum, he said.

However, “while we notice some difference, the families that are left behind, for the most part, will continue to take advantage of the parks, especially if they have kids,” Mr. Kieff said.

Visit thenysparks.com to learn more about the state park system.

While it’s expected that fewer Canadian visitors will be crossing at the north country’s international bridges because of the exchange rate, that’s all the more reason to continue a strong marketing effort to attract them, said Gary S. DeYoung, executive director of the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council.

“When the Canadian exchange has been off, we have seen a decline in the number of Canadians coming across the border,” he said. “But the numbers crossing last summer in July and August were actually strong.”

“We believe that we can still continue to attract many Canadian visitors this summer as well,” said Mr. DeYoung.

For example, the Council has identified two different groups of frequent Canadian visitors who are interested in a specific recreational activity – boating or motorcycle touring, he said.

The agency has been working to draw these groups across the border by promoting the many great bodies of water in the region, including the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, Mr. DeYoung said.

It has also worked to encourage motorcycle tourists to explore what the region has to offer, even if they are just traveling through on their way to another part of the state for an event, such as Thunder in Old Forge, an annual event in the Adirondacks, or the Americade Motorcycle Rally in Lake George.

“There are a lot of people from Ontario and Quebec who enjoy cycle touring” throughout New York State, Mr. DeYoung said.

In December, the agency launched a revised website promoting tourism on both sides of the border, Mr. DeYoung said. The address is visit1000islands.com.

It offers information about recreational activities, tourist attractions, motels, resorts and campgrounds, along with a little history about each community. There is also a separate listing for specific events throughout the region.

The communities featured on the website are Alexandria Bay, Cape Vincent, Clayton, Henderson Harbor, Sackets Harbor and Watertown. In addition, Brockville, Cornwall, Gananoque, Kingston, Prescott and the 1000 Islands Parkway in Ontario are also included.

“We cover both sides of the border,” Mr. DeYoung said.

The agency’s future plans include “more online ads, YouTube and Facebook posts as well” to promote recreational and tourism opportunities, Mr. DeYoung added.

Beach visitors enjoy Wescott Beach State Park, Henderson, last summer. With its miles of lake shores and rivers, tourism officials say Northern New York is well positioned to attract tourists to the region for its wealth of natural resources. Photo by Norm Johnston, NNY Business.

Beach visitors enjoy Wescott Beach State Park, Henderson, last summer. With its miles of lake shores and rivers, tourism officials say Northern New York is well positioned to attract tourists to the region for its wealth of natural resources. Photo by Norm Johnston, NNY Business.

The on-going deployments at Fort Drum present another challenge, although Mr. DeYoung called them a “double-edge sword.”

When soldiers are scheduled to deploy, their families from outside the area often come to the north country to “say goodbye” before the soldiers depart for several months overseas, he said.

“From all over the country, they have friends and family who are curious about where they are living, and they come to the area to see the soldiers off,” Mr. DeYoung said.

That results in an increased demand for lodging, he said. But at the same time, it may also result in decreased retail spending once the soldiers depart the area.

Deployments can have a mixed effect on the recreation and tourism business, said Karen M. Clark, director of the Fort Drum United Service Organization.

“While there is a loss of business from those who are deployed, there is probably an increase by family members who stay behind,” she said.

When a soldier is deployed, sometimes the family members may leave the area and return to their hometowns. But those spouses with children tend to remain in the north country, particularly if their children are in the middle of a school year, Mrs. Clark said.

“Those spouses with children who stay are often looking for recreational activities that they can do without the soldiers,” she said. “This makes the soldiers happy as well, if they know their families are not putting their lives on hold.”

The Army’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs offer a range of opportunities for both soldiers and family members to “get off Fort Drum” and see what the region has to offer, Mrs. Clark said.

“They have low-cost rentals of a variety of equipment” such as downhill and cross-country skis, snowmobiles, ice skates, canoes, kayaks, and camping gear, she said.

This allows people to try out new recreational activities, because many soldiers and family members from regions of the country such as the South aren’t going to show up to Fort Drum with skis, she said.

“The Army realizes people may have come here without a lot of recreational gear,” and they may not want to make an investment until they first try out the activity, Mrs. Clark said.

Information is also provided to military families about a large number of tourist destinations in the region, along with special events, tours and even the sites of local farmers markets, Mrs. Clark said.

“Once they have kids, there are ties to the community,” she said “We tell the families to make the most out of it.”

Visit uso.org/fortdrum to learn more about the USO.

Norah Machia is a freelance writer who lives in Watertown. She is a 20-year veteran journalist and former Watertown Daily Times reporter. Contact her at norahmachia@gmail.com.